Kashmir: Life from a window

And this is a very unsentimental town about the past. It tears down the past all the time. Every day you drive somewhere and you see a missing block. And what is interesting is that people immediately forget what was there. It’s an immediate erasure of the past“.—Salman Rushdie, referring to New York City, in an interview to Aatish Taseer

My neighbourhood in the old city of Srinagar is unlikely to have any memory of the people who lived there three decades ago, their daily rhythms and rituals. It’s changed in its composition, some houses have got a makeover, old structures replaced by concrete and shiny, modern material. In a way, the past has been erased.

There are many such neighbourhoods with old houses, new nameplates, new residents. These neighbourhoods do not remember the generations which grew up there, played in its alleys, had heartbreaks and dreams. It may not even remember that these people did not abandon their houses. Fear, frenzy, whispers, rumours, that knock on the door—the neighbourhood watched silently as house after house emptied out.

Houses are a number on a street, a pincode on a map. Their rooms, decor and paint change with the people who inhabit them. But people, long after they have taken up residence in different cities and countries, still sit together on some quiet evenings and reminisce about the stories of these old homes. Of the forlorn temple that stands in the neighbourhood on the banks of the river, the god now hemmed in by security; the pomegranate tree in the aunt’s backyard; the hands that would get stained while shelling green walnuts; the rain that would always fall around Janamashtami.

In the last 30 years, many have revisited home. Children who have taken their parents, and seen them break down, overcome with sorrow; some who went looking but could not recognize their neighbourhood; others unable to reconcile to the fact that the place is beyond grasp and comprehension. A friend brought back a latticed window discarded from a house being rebuilt. It’s the first thing you see when you enter her drawing room, fitted on a wall, an exhibit from another time, but offering no view.

Then one morning, while you are on your way to work, you find that the “special” and “definite” articles you thought were constitutionally appended to your state are gone. It’s not even a state anymore. You wonder if you, living on a different street, in a different pincode, are supposed to be happy or sad? A friend messaged, asking, “How are you? Has this sunk in? Does this mean something right away?”

Security personnel guarding a street during the recent lockdown in Srinagar.
Security personnel guarding a street during the recent lockdown in Srinagar. (AFP)

Right away, I thought of my late father, chain-smoking and drinking endless cups of tea while writing his edits on Kashmir. Of his heartbreak every time he received news of losing friends to the madness because they were “secular” or “agents of India”. The sadness and bitterness he felt at drifting apart from friends because their ideologies didn’t match. He would have liked to return home one last time, maybe revisit his old haunt, the coffee house on Residency Road in Srinagar, and relive the old times of endless debates over the place that was his home.I thought of our first few years in Delhi, the early 1990s; how my parents’ first priority was to get a fridge and, then maybe, a TV. A decade later, my mother would be most reluctant to part with that second-hand fridge—which you had to manually defrost—and upgrade to a new one. That third-hand fridge became our maid’s first fridge.I thought of my Kashmiri acquaintances, some of whom have second homes in Delhi, who believe that the then governor facilitated the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits. We look at the past, present and future differently, but we speak without rancour.I thought of the people who lived in camps in Jammu and Delhi after leaving Kashmir—their struggles and grief, yes, but also that they managed to start anew; of the people no longer alive, who were consumed by the thought of home. Someone, who is in his early 60s, commented on Facebook: “We lost our prime in tropical climate. We grew old because we lost our home and roots.” Yes, we lost our home, our neighbourhoods, our communities. But the place lost all those things too. When we left, we took away a bit of its soul.Maybe now is the time to look ahead. The last 30 years of bloodshed can’t be the template for the future—we have paid a heavy price. Drown out the shrill voices, the ones who are fist-pumping and the ones anticipating more mayhem—Kashmir is not a spectator sport. Let the future not be one where you are looking at the world furtively through that crack in the window overlooking a curfewed street. Give peace a chance.


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